Essex firm’s technology has vital role in NASA’s Pluto mission

This new image of Pluto, on July 8, 2015, was taken by LORRI
NASA image

This new image of Pluto, on July 8, 2015, was taken by LORRI NASA image - Credit: Archant

Technology from British company e2v is set to capture the first ever close-up images of Pluto

Two image sensors from Chelmsford, Essex company e2v are part of the Pluto exploration mission.

Two image sensors from Chelmsford, Essex company e2v are part of the Pluto exploration mission. LORRI and Ralph (Low res images) - Credit: Archant

British technology firm e2v based in Chelmsford, Essex, has provided NASA’s New Horizons Mission with two image sensors which hope to capture the first ever close-up images of Pluto.

New Horizons which launched in January 2006 plans to examine Pluto, its moon Charon and other icy worlds at the edge of our solar system. After travelling over three billion miles to reach Pluto, it will provide scientific data about this little known region and the conditions at the origin of our solar system.

Matt Perkins, president of Space Imaging at e2v, said: “Very little is known about Pluto. It is classed as an icy dwarf, with a significant part of its mass believed to be made up of ice. It is so far away that even images from Hubble, which also uses e2v image sensors, are very blurred. Developing bespoke sensors for this mission is a great example of how we are bringing life to technology and as the only UK Company to have been involved in the mission, we are extremely proud of our contribution and look forward to seeing what our sensors discover.”

e2v has been involved in over 150 space projects, including the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission, which successfully landed a probe onto comet 67p in November 2014. e2v has provided New Horizons with two specialist image sensors for the mission to Pluto – LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) and Ralph.

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LORRI is a black and white telescopic camera which has a 1k x 1k pixel image sensor at its core. Paul Jerram, Chief Engineer of Image Sensors at e2v, said “LORRI is very similar to the Navcam image sensor we made for the Rosetta mission, which has been producing the majority of the incredible images of comet 67p. LORRI will be providing images of the approach to Pluto, as well as high resolution geological data as New Horizons passes the dwarf-planet.”

Ralph is a 5k wide multi-colour scanning imager which will produce a full colour image of the surface of Pluto as New Horizons flies past. Paul Jerram continues, “Ralph is highly bespoke, in fact it is seven different CCDs (Coupled Charged Devices) made on the same substrate, providing a complete focal plane within a single sensor. As the spacecraft is travelling at 33,000 miles per hour and there is 1,000 times less sunlight at Pluto than at the Earth, this image sensor has to be extremely sensitive and has to work perfectly for the short time that the spacecraft is close to Pluto.”

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A major aspect of the delivery of e2v’s image sensors into any space programme is the testing required to ensure that they will survive the launch and operate to specification when needed. This involves environmental testing to show that the sensor performance will not be damaged by shock, vibration, temperature extremes and the radiation that is encountered outside the Earth’s atmosphere. So while there is only a single sensor on-board the spacecraft, many sensors are produced and destructively tested to ensure that it will work as and when required.

New Horizons will be at its closest approach to Pluto at approximately 12:00pm (GMT) on 14 July 2015, and at this point e2v image sensors will have minutes to capture as much data as possible from the dwarf-planet as it flies by. Light or radio signals will take approximately 4.5 hours to get from Pluto back to Earth, therefore NASA hopes to release the first close-up images of Pluto at around 9:00pm (GMT) on 15 July 2015.

Find out more about e2v’s Space Imaging Division

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